Birthstones (or “Birthday Stones”) have existed as part of various cultures around the world for thousands of years, whether for astrological, medicinal, religious or purely aesthetic purposes. They are the precious or semi-precious gems associated with an individual’s month of birth – sometimes even their day of birth – and often worn on pendants or rings. Different lists exist to determine which stone should symbolize a specific time period; examples of this are the Ayurvedic list of India for use in healing, the Zodiac list created long before the Gregorian calendar was introduced, or the American National Association of Jewelers list that was decided in 1912 and continues to be followed. Some of the best known minerals include sapphire, ruby, garnet, diamond, emerald and amethyst.
Gemstones had many uses in ancient times: the Egyptians considered some jewels to be the eyes of gods, while they had sacrificial roles for the Aztecs and mystic abilities for the Tibetans. The Babylonians believed that the stones possessed magical powers, and could endow their bearers with good fortune and health. Their astrologists created the Zodiac as a way of monitoring the movement of the stars and, since individuals’ personalities were affiliated with the celestial period in which they were born, the “attributes”of birthstones were assigned to best help and compliment these human characteristics. Many societies in antiquity such as those of Asia and South America also believed that the gems could cure wounds and illness. This ranged from placing the stone on a person’s skin to grinding it up into a paste for consumption. Ayurveda healing in India – thought to be around 3,500 years old – still incorporates birthstones in their methods.
It is alleged that the modern understanding of birthstones in Western culture derives from the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible where, after escaping Egypt, Moses’ elder brother Aaron was named High Priest and wore a breastplate with twelve gems to represent the tribes of Israel. These later evolved with Christian beliefs to reflect the Foundation Stones of New Jerusalem and their connection to the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. It became common practice between the 17th and 18th centuries among European Christians to wear a different jewel each month to maximize their effect, though the religious significance behind this was eventually lost, and replaced by the Eastern tradition of wearing a single stone associated with the individual’s month of birth. As a result of changing customs and tastes, contemporary birthstone lists have little to do with their origins, but remain hugely popular and important for many people around the planet.